Prague, 11 September 1998 (RFE/RL) - With former foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov likely to be confirmed today by the State Duma as Russia's new prime minister, Western press commentary focuses strongly on several key questions: Can Primakov end Russia's crippling economic crisis? Based on his past government experience, what can be expected of Primakov in both domestic and foreign-policy areas? Does his appointment signal a return to the past or a new beginning? Editorials and analyses vary greatly in their responses to the questions.
FINANCIAL TIMES: Primakov will have to perform an extraordinary balancing act
Britain's Financial Times says that Primakov's nomination "should at least end the vacuum of power in Moscow," but warns: "Whether he can put together a government capable of pulling the country out its political and economic crisis is another matter." In an editorial, the paper writes: "The ultimate survivor from the Soviet era, closely linked throughout his career to the KGB and its successor intelligence agencies, Mr. Primakov can claim the remarkable feat of support from both Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yablonko group, and Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist party."
The FT's editorial continues: "The most important thing (now) is putting together a new government, and then drawing up an emergency policy to stabilize the ruble. Mr. Primakov says he will pursue economic reform....But he may have to make concessions to the Duma to ensure his approval. There is a majority there for a return to the old measures of the command economy....These would be retrograde steps."
The editorial concludes: "If Mr. Primakov is to please both factions (communists and liberals), he will have to perform an extraordinary balancing act. His career suggests he may be capable of it. His intelligence connections may help to control the financial barons and regional governors who rival the (federal) government's authority. He is also a man without (presidential) pretensions...But there is no evidence yet to suggest that he has the vision to get the Russian economy out of its hole."
NEW YORK TIMES: Primakov's selection looks more like an act of desperation
In its editorial today, the New York Times is even more skeptical about Primakov's nomination. The paper writes: "If urbanity, longevity and familiarity with international issues were the qualities most needed for Russia's next prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov would be admirably suited for the job....But since a commitment to democracy and reform are more essential for Russia's future, his selection...by President Boris Yeltsin looks more like an act of desperation than an act of leadership."
The NYT goes on to say: "Primakov is no ideologue, as his smooth transition from one leader and era to the next would suggest. He can be charming, wryly amusing and cold-bloodedly pragmatic. But Russians should not look to him for new reform programs. Instead, he is likely to assemble a coalition government and try to steady the economy through the kind of state intervention that over time crippled the Soviet Union." It adds: "The question is whether Primakov will do so cautiously and within the framework of a market system, or try to wrench Russia back toward a managed economy, which would stunt the prospects for recovery."
The paper also says: "Primakov may also harden Russian foreign policy in areas like the Balkans and the Middle East, where he has already opposed U.S. positions as foreign minister. His reputation as a defender of Russian interests has served him well in a nation soured on capitalism and increasingly wary of Washington's policy prescriptions."
The NYT sums up: "Primakov should bring a measure of stability to a country verging on anarchy. He at least commands the respect of many of his fellow politicians and countrymen, which is more than can be said of Yeltsin.... Such are the calculations that pass for leadership in Moscow these days."
IRISH TIMES: Mr. Primakov is facing a crisis which threatens ruination to millions
Under the heading "Mr. Primakov's Challenge," the Irish Times writes today: "Mr. Primakov's priority will be to choose his cabinet; this could prove to be complicated and time-consuming. He will want a broad-based cabinet but could get bogged down in horse-trading on government policies as possible participants make their demands. It is vital that Mr. Primakov forms a cabinet quickly and reasserts a degree of central authority, even if that means the cabinet is less representative than he would have wished."
The paper's editorial continues: "Economic reform will be crucial to the success of Mr. Primakov's administration. And reform must include collection of taxes and closing down insolvent banks. The financial and industrial barons who control much of the economy will put up stout resistance but they must be side-lined." The IT concludes: "Russia has overcome great crises in this century and Mr. Primakov, most assuredly, is facing another; one which threatens ruination to millions and which could well break the national federation apart."
ZUERCHER ZEITUNG: Russia needs fresher and more adroit personalities
Switzerland's Neue Zuercher Zeitung titles its editorial today, "Russia Needs Fresh Leaders." The paper asks: "What use is foreign-affairs experience in the search for a solution to the (problems of the) disastrous Russian economy?" It answers: "Primakov is no professional in economics. He is also known not to be a particularly successful assertive manager. Despite his experience (as foreign minister), he failed to achieve prestige and influence for Russia in the international arena --a disappointment that has less to do with his capabilities than with the economic weaknesses of his country."
The NZZ goes on: "All (Russia's) parties consider a premature dissolution of the Duma and new elections as risky, given the current crisis. That is why the prospects of a Primakov government succeeding, of him somehow stabilizing the situation in the country, are not entirely without foundation. But," the paper concludes, "for a long-term upward trend, Russia needs fresher and more adroit personalities --above all in the President's position."
TRIBUNE DE GENEVE: In Primakov the communist and nationalist Parliamentarians believe they have caught their fish
The Swiss French-language daily Tribune de Geneve today runs a signed editorial entitled "An Apparatchik's Challenges." Mathieu Van Bercham writes that Russia's communists and nationalists "did not really try to place one of their own as chief of government. Instead, they believe they can manipulate the new prime minister from the Duma's benches." The editorial adds: "(Primakov,) the president's man, will thus become the parliamentarians' man, obliged to make the country swallow their program of 'renewal:' that is, nationalizations, belt-tightening and a return to (the idea of) a Great Russia."
The TdG goes on: "In Yevgeny Maximovitch Primakov, (the communist and nationalist parliamentarians)believe they have caught their fish. A former Pravda correspondent, member of the Soviet Communist Party's central committee and politburo, and Russian intelligence chief, Primakov incarnates a certain idea of Russia, apparently one closer to (Leonid) Brezhnev than to (Boris) Berezovsky. As foreign minister, his efforts to defend the 'interests' of the country, in ex-Yugoslavia as well as in the Middle East, reassured conservatives of all stripes."
LIBERATION: Primakov is above all an exceptional navigator
"The Return of the KGB Generation" is the overall title France's Liberation daily today gives to its extensive coverage of the Primakov nomination. In a signed editorial headed "A Certain Talent for Adaptation," foreign editor Jacques Almaric writes of Primakov: "'Beneath the veneer of a sort of conviviality and great caution, there lies a negotiator as skillful as he is stubborn who never forgets his ultimate goal: give back to Russia the stature of a super-power once enjoyed by the Soviet Union.' That's the judgment of (an unnamed) diplomat who has had extensive contacts with Primakov. But given the decrepit condition to which Boris Yeltsin's Russia has sunk, the judgment might be deemed as no longer valid."
"That would be a mistake," Almaric continues. "Because if there is an unbroken red thread in Primakov's multiple past careers, it is clearly the defense, by all available means, of what he considers Russia's national interests." Almaric adds: "Since 1996, Western capitals --especially Washington-- have learned a good deal about Primakov as a hard-headed negotiator....particularly on problems as delicate as the enlargement of NATO, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Caspian-sea oil, and Iran's nuclear technology. To the point that Bill Clinton has had several times to 'circumvent' the Kremlin's chief diplomat in order to (preserve) his strategic partnership (with Russia)."
The editorial sums up: "A man of the shadows and of the apparatus, Primakov is not strictly speaking a politician, even though he was elected to the Soviet parliament in 1988. Nor is he an economist. He is above all an exceptional navigator, even in difficult times, who has known how to protect his contacts with the KGB as well as with the Communist Party, and who has taken care never to show himself as a very strong advocate of reforms."
GUARDIAN: The country's new prime minister bids fair to end the political stalemate
Britain's Guardian daily takes a diametrically opposed view today. Its editorial, entitled "Primakov Is Not a Crony," begins: "Russia's elite has had a welcome fit of common sense. The nomination of Yevgeny Primakov to be the country's new prime minister bids fair to end the political stalemate of the last three weeks. Almost every faction in the Duma has promised its support in today's vote. The new man will start his administration on a strong footing."
The Guardian goes on to say: "In nominating Primakov it is not yet clear whether Yeltsin will agree to hand over some of his powers to parliament and the new government team. Whether today's solution to the political crisis will go far in solving Russia's massive economic problems is also uncertain. The very fact that an elderly figure with no economic background has become prime minister is a sign of the paucity of talent. But Primakov is an honest and intelligent man, and in no way a crony capitalist. He is what Russians call a 'gosudarstvennik,' an experienced professional who understands the need to restore a strong state, albeit on democratic lines, in place of today's chaos and lawlessness."
The Guardian's editorial concludes: "In the great debate between those who still cling to the neo-liberal economic model and those who wish to put controls on speculative short-term capital and protect the viable parts of Russian industry, (Primakov's) instincts are with the latter. The outside world can only hope that today's political cease-fire leads to the stability which millions of ordinary Russians so desperately seek --and deserve-- after the shocks of the last decade."